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Sergei Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets ready for showdown

Visit Capitals with first place in Metropolitan Division, NHL on line

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

COLUMBUS -- Sergei Bobrovsky sat at the end of the bench and stared up at the clock as the final seconds counted down at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday. When the horn sounded on the Columbus Blue Jackets' 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, he didn't move. He waited patiently as his teammates headed to the locker room. Finally, he stood up and joined them.

You might think he spent the night as the backup goaltender thinking ahead to his start against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, FS-O, NHL.TV). You might think he at least began to think ahead when the Maple Leafs scored an empty-net goal with 2:47 to go.

The last time Columbus played Washington, Bobrovsky gave up five goals on 23 shots and was pulled. The Blue Jackets lost 5-0 at Verizon Center on Jan. 5, a 16-game winning streak ending one short of the NHL record set by the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins.

This time, Columbus is two points behind Washington for first place and one behind Pittsburgh for second in the NHL standings, not to mention the ultracompetitive Metropolitan Division. A win in regulation, with a Pittsburgh loss in regulation, would put Columbus in first based on the tiebreaking procedure.

So, big game.

"It's a great opponent," Bobrovsky said. "It's going to be interesting. It's one of the best teams in the League, so we'll see. We'll see who's going to be better."

Video: CBJ@NJD: Bobrovsky denies Devils with two quick saves

But Bobrovsky said he didn't think ahead during the game against the Maple Leafs, didn't think ahead at the end of the game, and wouldn't think ahead on the late-night flight either.

"Usually I start to prepare on the game day, in the morning," Bobrovsky said. "Nothing special."

That's part of what makes him special, and that's part of the story of these Blue Jackets. Staying in the moment. Focusing on the process. Keeping an even keel. All the stuff that sounds trite but, if taken to heart, if done day after day, can lead to results.

Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender in 2012-13, is playing at that level again. He leads the League in wins (39), goals-against average (2.04) and save percentage (.931), and has six shutouts, two off the League lead (Braden Holtby of Washington).

The Blue Jackets have set their records for wins (47) and points (100) and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in their 16-year history. They have a chance to raise a banner to the barren rafters at Nationwide Arena: for the division, for the Presidents' Trophy, maybe even for the Stanley Cup.

"I don't look that far," Bobrovsky said. "Tomorrow is the most important game for us."

Video: FLA@CBJ: Bobrovsky turns aside Jagr's late redirect

He meant that it was the most important game because it was the next game.

"We're going to work hard," he said. "We're going to compete for those two points, and then we'll move from there. It's obviously a big competition. It's a tough league. But you have to go step by step."

Bobrovsky was worn out the last time Columbus played Washington. He had played in 33 of the Blue Jackets' 37 games and won 14 of the 16 on their winning streak.

He and the team were due for regression, and regress they did. From that loss to the Capitals through Feb. 19, Bobrovsky went 6-8-1 with a .906 save percentage. The Blue Jackets went 10-11-1.

But coach John Tortorella started giving Bobrovsky more rest, playing him more than three games in a row once, never playing him more than six games in a row, and the Blue Jackets went on their five-day break Feb. 20-24. Since then, Bobrovsky is 8-0-1 with a .961 save percentage and seven straight wins, and the Blue Jackets are 10-3-1.

"I just think he's found a real good way of preparing himself each and every day and really has fine-tuned his game and his body and his mind to just handle the workload he's been given," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "I think he's enjoying himself. I think that's the biggest thing too. When you're having fun, when you're enjoying yourself, the game starts to become fun and easy, and he makes it look that way sometimes."

Video: NJD@CBJ: Bobrovsky shuts door with three nice saves

So, big game. But it's only the beginning.

The Blue Jackets will have nine games left in the regular season, including a stretch when they play three of the top teams in the League in five days: the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on March 31, the Capitals at Nationwide Arena on April 2, and the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on April 4. 

The Presidents' Trophy and division races will continue. Then, the playoffs.

You've got to pace yourself mentally and physically. Bobrovsky said when he played all the time, he was in a rhythm. Now that he's getting more rest, he has more energy, but he has to control it.

"You have to adjust again," he said, "so you don't spend that energy just stupidly."

He slowly finished taking off his equipment and headed off to D.C.

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